The term independent once meant something in Philippine cinema. It was reserved for such luminaries as Rox Lee (the great animator), Raymond Red (the great short-film maker), and in recent years, Lav Diaz (the great stubborn filmmaker). These were artists who had earned their stripes and garnered accolades but refused to sell out or cater to commercial demands, preferring to maintain control over their work rather than cash in and see their names in lights.
Today independent and its many synonyms has become a hot buzzword in the Philippines. Young filmmakers, students, festivals, even commercial studios are beginning to use the word, defiling the purity that was once associated with it.
When parties from the commercial industry, from the mainstream or establishment, begin to infiltrate and claim the underground for themselves, what is left for the true independent filmmaker to do? Stan Brakhage put it best:
So the money vendors have begun it again. To the catacombs then, or rather plant this seed deeper in the underground beyond false nourishing of sewage waters. Let it draw nourishment from hidden uprising springs channeled by gods … forget ideology, for film unborn as it is has no language and speaks like an aborigine monotonous rhetoric…. Abandon aesthetics…. Negate techniques, for film, like America, has not been discovered yet, and mechanization, in the deepest possible sense of the word, traps both beyond measuring even chances…. Let film be. It is something … becoming.
It is in this spirit that the New Philippine Cinema, conceived in 2004, birthed in 2005, and now beginning to mature in 2006, is being forged. While it does encompass this false new independence, most of its best and brightest moments have been strong reactions against it.
To speak of ambition in regard to Raya Martin’s A Short Film about the Indio Nacional (or the Prolonged Sorrow of Filipinos) would be to speak of the obvious the director was a 21-year-old college senior undertaking a feature film, silent with title cards, shot on 35mm, in black-and-white, set in the 1890s Spanish-era Philippines. The movie starts with a frustratingly slow 22-minute piece, shot in color, on digital video, with sound, that’s devoid of action for the first 17 minutes (before settling into a moving tale of nationalism). Martin’s A Short Film is an intensely personal work projecting the young director’s emotional impressions of the bygone era into the beginnings of the uprising, the stirrings of Philippine nationalism. Is Martin’s film accurate in its depiction? Does it represent a work evincing deep historical research that may be used as a text for young students to study in order to know more about the era? No and that is both its strength and its weakness.
A Short Film focuses on minor and intimate moments, creating images that would otherwise be left out of major historical films (and were left out of the films shot at the time by the colonizers). How relevant is the film in the cultural geography of the Philippines? I daresay it is a very, very important work, one that will be looked at with as much perplexity now as admiration in the future. But the reasons for its importance, for its significance, will be (a) its audacity, (b) its aesthetic, and (c) the emotional impact it will have on maybe not an entire generation of average viewers, but at the very least this generation of filmmakers. A Short Film throws down the gauntlet and with rude authority for the heights of sophistication and beauty the Philippine aesthetic may reach.
John Torres is as personal a filmmaker as you can possibly meet. His short films and one feature (Todo Todo Teros) all made for not more than the cost of a few mini-DV tapes and the opportunity cost of accepting other work (he runs a small editing house) are heartbreaking works. They combine found and organized footage with text in a way that hasn’t been seen before in Philippine cinema. I go to Torres’s films for what I can learn from them. But I learn nothing a proper academic setting would find valuable, nothing of history, politics, or economics; not even anything about contemporary Philippine cinema. I learn something much, much more valuable to me in my life: I learn about the inner working of the heart. Torres’s films, the ideas behind them, the struggle to make them, teach me something I need to learn: humility, benevolence. They illustrate the beauty found in self-effacement, in touching your pain, admitting your faults, and at the same time learning to sacrifice face in the name of trust, in the name of solidarity with humanity and sharing everything that is close to you with the world in the hope that it will understand and sympathize with you as much as you are trying your hardest to understand and sympathize with it. Ultimately, they are tone poems, films that both espouse and offer compassion.
Lav Diaz’s works stand so off tangent that Evolution of a Filipino Family has had only six screenings in the Philippines. His Heremias, a labor of love and the first half of the last part of his Philippine trilogy, following Evolution and Batang West Side, was written, directed, produced, and edited by Diaz himself. The astonishing thing about his Philippine trilogy is how, while the films are radical in themselves, they’re also all so different in time, space, and aesthetic. The five-hour West Side, about the Filipino experience abroad, is a 35mm color work shot and set in contemporary New Jersey. The 11-hour Evolution, a mix of 16mm and various forms of digital, is in black-and-white and is set just before, during, and after the martial law period in the Philippines. Mixing scenes of urban and rural life, it is astonishingly sophisticated in its use of both mise-en-scène and (intellectual) montage, a remarkable feat given its duration. The nine-hour Heremias, shot entirely on digital, is set in the present-day rural Philippines. It is the only film in the trilogy that is told linearly and focuses on a single character. This trilogy, when completed, should tower over contemporary Philippine cinema, over aspiring independent filmmakers as a paradigm of what it means to be uncompromising.
The new Philippine filmmaker does not fear experimentation but embraces it, knowing that, as Brakhage declared, film or perhaps better put, cinema is still something … becoming. While aboveground the death of Philippine cinema (or the industry) is proclaimed, in the deep underground lie the real artists, replenishing the soil with seeds of a new cinema. *
Alexis A. Tioseco is editor in chief at Criticine. A longer version of this piece can be found at www.criticine.com.
For Tioseco’s top five Southeast Asian features, short works, and older films seen for the first time, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.